The night was clear and the moon was yellow, And the leaves came tumbling down. I was standing on the corner, when I heard my bulldog bark. He was barking at the two men, who were gambling in the dark. It was Stagger Lee and Billy, two men who gambled late.
The song is Stagger Lee by Lloyd Price - the first commercially successful version of a folk murder ballad that had long been a mainstay in nightclubs throughout the South. It may have also been one of the first versions of the tune (also known as Stagolee, Stack Lee, etc.) that was also commercially viable, as early renditions were often more graphic with more than a few of those words that George Carlin warned us all about. It was also not entirely accurate.
The weather at the time is not known, but it most definitely was not the fall. In fact (and perhaps ironically), the legend of Stagger Lee was born on Christmas Night, 1895 in the Bill Curtis Saloon in an area of St. Louis, Missouri that at the time was the red light district. The two men were Lee "Stack Lee" Shelton (an area pimp with political connections) and William "Billy" Lyons. And despite the song's portrayal of a night of gambling gone bad, the conflict really began over an argument of politics after an otherwise innocent night of drinks and laughs.
Stagger Lee shot Billy. Oh, he shot that poor boy so bad. 'Till the bullet came through Billy And broke the bartender's glass.
That much is true, though the fate of the bartender's glass is unclear. In fact, the bartender was one of the few witnesses left in the saloon after Shelton had pulled out his .44 and took aim. Like the song suggests, he was after his white Stetson hat; though not because he lost it in a bet but rather because Lyons had snagged it after Shelton had broken his Derby in the heat of the argument. The end result was the same though - Shelton shot once and calmly walked out of the bar, while Lyons was rushed to the hospital where he later died.
So how did a known pimp and a murder in an area that was infamous for crime transform into one of the most well-known murder ballads of all time? It is not entirely known, though it is worth pointing out that Duncan killed Brady (Duncan and Brady) quite literally across the street just five years earlier, while Frankie shot Johnny (actually Allan Britt - of Frankie and Johnny fame) four years later a couple blocks away. It is safe to say that some balladeer was kept busy.
At any rate, Stagger Lee has come to represent the baddest of the bad in musical form; not unlike Mack the Knife or Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, though if you listen to some renditions of Stagger Lee, he could take them out without breaking a sweat too. And it all started on Christmas Day.
The Bill Curtis Saloon may no longer exist, but a few blocks away is a historic home (photo above) that looks somewhat out-of-place in a primarily industrial area and was once the home of Lee Shelton - complete with the "crib houses" for Shelton's working girls. Also in town is the St. Peters Cemetery where Billy was buried in an unmarked grave. Ironically, Shelton is buried only a block or so away at the Greenwood Cemetery (also in an unmarked grave), where he was laid to rest after succumbing to tuberculosis while serving time at the Missouri State Penitentiary for a separate crime. And though it has since been closed town, the story even inspired a local bar and grill to take on the name of the city's local legend for awhile - Stagger Lee's.
So I leave you with this often overlooked Christmas legend and wish you and your family a very happy and safe holiday.